Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Room with a View

I moved to a new apartment last week. The son of my previous landlady wanted the flat (so that his children could play in the garden); good tenants as we were, we didn’t stand a chance. My flatmates and I went our separate way – one to Morocco, and one back to an old housemate. I moved in with an Egyptian family that I know from church. The rent is higher and the living space smaller; this countered by the total immersion in Egyptian Arabic and the fact that someone cooks for me. Another consequence is that I have ended up opposite the main train station, overlooking a large open space that is ideal for protests. Whilst I have seen such things previously (they’ve been hard to avoid over the time I’ve lived in Alexandria), this Friday was my first opportunity to watch one from beginning to end.

I’d been warned earlier in the week that a big protest was planned for Friday. It wasn’t terribly surprising: they happen most weeks, to a greater or lesser extent. People started to gather early in the afternoon, after the Friday prayers. For their numbers and demeanour, they might as well have been waiting for a train as a protest. For a couple of hours they were simply sitting on convenient pieces of street furniture; the only real clue that there was any political motive to the gathering was a girl spinning round and round holding an Egyptian flag. Her, and the tea seller who set up shop on the other side of the road, evidently expecting something bigger.

Around three, this warm-up act for the main event started. They numbered about fifty, and there was plenty of space for them to protest without disrupting daily life, but they decided that the road (one of two arterial routes running the length of the city) was the obvious place. The whole thing was peaceful, and rather lacklustre. It spluttered along for a couple of hours, before the participants, deciding that the real stuff must be going on elsewhere, drifted off in different directions.

About eight o’clock the main body of the protest arrived. They marched down the road holding a very large flag between them and chanting anti-government slogans, coming to a halt in front of the station. It was hard to estimate in the dark how many there were, but it was a fair number. The organisation degenerated fairly swiftly, and something of a street party commenced, with everyone hanging around in gaggles, several of which had music playing at loud volume. History does not relate who claimed the flag… The tea seller had clearly been anticipating this, as he had not packed up his stall from earlier in the afternoon, and had, indeed, been joined by a hot sweet potato seller (that is, a seller of hot sweet potatoes. I make no claim to an opinion on his looks…). These two appeared to be doing a fairly brisk trade.

Presently, it became apparent that the real action was still taking place elsewhere. The mosque directly below my new apartment had been turned into a makeshift casualty clearing station, and there was a fairly regular stream of motorbikes coming in with the wounded. These agile ambulances were clearly organised: the driver would weave his way through the crowds with his finger permanently on the horn; behind him would be the casualty, and at the rear would be another chap holding the casualty upright. Occasionally a real ambulance would arrive to take someone away. There was also a scent of tear gas in the air: from a distance, this is manifested by a tinny tang, and a slight propensity of the eyes towards watering. Not exactly pleasant, but not sufficient to drive me inside.

Meanwhile, aside from the casualties in the mosque and the gas (neither of which have featured heavily at most parties I’ve been to) the party atmosphere seemed to continue. The police were nowhere to be seen (though occasional cracks from their gas launchers could be heard in the distance). The tea and potato sellers continued to do a roaring trade. This all changed very suddenly, and with no apparent provocation. There was a general panicked surge in the crowd which turned to flight as gas canisters started to land among them.

The protestors regrouped very swiftly, and the mood became rather grim. The chanting started up again, and rubbish bins were set alight and rolled (with little success: most fell over) in the direction of the police lines. Rock throwing prompted another police advance, this time past the mosque-cum-hospital. At this stage, it was apparent that anything in front of the police was fair game (apart, curiously, from the tea seller, who manfully stuck to his post); an ambulance backed away from the mosque under fire, and a protestor who’d been hiding behind it was shot in the leg. From my distance, it was hard to tell what he was shot with, though given the general lack of bodies I suspect it was a gas launcher. He managed to limp away.

The protestors regrouped again and, galvanised by the latest advance, launched a counter attack armed with fireworks, rocks and petrol bombs. The police retreated, and the protestors proceeded to ransack a police station attached to the mosque which had hitherto been ignored. There was an attempt to burn it, though another police charge put a stop to this (something I was rather glad for, not particularly wanting the smoke to fill my apartment). This charge revealed an interesting fact: namely, that the ‘police’ were not all in uniform. There were a number in ordinary clothes, covering their faces with scarves, and armed with machetes, clubs and other makeshift weapons (including the apparently ubiquitous plastic crate). Some friends have suggested they were plain clothes police; others that they were pro-government militia. Either way, they were destructive and indiscriminate, and had no regard for the wounded in the mosque.

A curious feature permeated the charges and counter charges. As the police prepared to charge, there would be a banging of the shields, designed to strike fear into the hearts of the protestors. A charge from the protestors would be preceded by an animal-like shrieking, presumably designed to do the same to the police. The strategies seemed to work, up to a point; certainly, each charge would cause the opposing side to fall back in some disarray. But neither side really followed up on the advantage, or turned retreat into rout.

However, the tide gradually turned against the protestors, and though there remained some surges back and forth, the tea man’s trade was now dominated by those behind the police lines. However, things grew a little too close for comfort for me at this stage when a tear gas canister, whether misdirected, fire deliberately, or hurled back by the protestors, landed at the foot of my apartment building. I was on the balcony at the time, and got a face full of the stuff; even having beaten a retreat inside, it seeped through the window frame, and filled my bedroom and the sitting room. We withdrew to the kitchen. For those of my readers who have not previously experienced tear gas up close, I shall try to describe it. Imagine that you have chopped some chilli, and that it is frying and filling the kitchen with smoke. Meanwhile, you’ve taken the most pungent onions you can find, and chopped them (perhaps, for good measure, wiping your eyes with your chilli and onion soaked hands). To while away the time while the chilli continues to cook, you create lines of ground black pepper on the table top, and snort them. And to complete the picture of eyes, nose and throat, you go into the garden where a bonfire is burning, and take a few good deep breaths of the smoke. Now combine these sensations, and multiply them. You probably haven’t quite reached tear gas (which also produces a slightly burning sensation on the more sensitive skin of the face), but I’ll warrant it sounds quite unpleasant… (For reference, if one is unlucky enough to get caught by the stuff, one should put a couple of drops of vinegar on a wet flannel, and hold it over one’s nose and mouth. And get out of the gas.)

Once the gas had cleared from my bedroom, I decided it was time to go to bed. Curiously, the whole protest finished fairly promptly at midnight, leaving me with relatively undisturbed sleep. For those of my readers concerned that I may be in great danger, I should point out that the closest I got to death or serious injury yesterday was when I fell down the stairs in the morning thanks to my attention being directed at my phone. Fortunately, my landlord was below me, and caught me just before my head careered into a wall. The worst I had to show for it was a couple of grazed knuckles. And that could have happened anywhere…

(For pictures, please take a look at my twitter account: @pdcwelby)

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